Semi-Safe

Pasadena police wanted bad trucks off the road. Then big-rig politics wrecked their plans.

Driving home from work on Pasadena Boulevard, Judy Wren had no reason to be especially cautious as she approached the intersection with the Texas 225 frontage road, already bathed in the shadows of twilight. She had the green light.

That didn't matter, because the Freightliner truck bearing down the frontage road toward her had no brakes. Driver Eric Konarik had already sailed through two red lights and hoped his luck would hold until the rig came to a stop.

It didn't. As Wren crossed the intersection, the truck broadsided her Buick Century, spinning it into another vehicle. She was hurled from the car, struck her head on the pavement and died instantly.

The December 1996 wreck was no mere fluke. Konarik claimed he had reported brake problems to his company, Ace Transportation, but repairs had never been made. Nor was his the only Ace truck with faulty brakes -- the company had been cited in the past by the Pasadena Police Department for the same infraction. "Ace had already come to my attention," says Sergeant Loni Robinson, who heads the department's motor carrier safety section. "I had seen a number of reports cross my desk on Ace."

In the 12 months after Wren was killed, Pasadena police officers inspected 15 Ace trucks. Twelve flunked, eight for brake problems. Those numbers are now being used by Wren's family to help leverage a $5 million gross negligence suit against the company.

Even the threat of a hefty judgment apparently did not inspire Ace to clean up its act. On October 9, an Ace truck was taken off the road with five major violations, including several brake-related failings. "We still have problems with Ace," says Robinson. "They haven't changed their tactics at all. It's mind-boggling."

Wren's death and Ace's subsequent rap sheet reinforced what Robinson and the officers who inspect commercial vehicles have long known: Of the thousands of trucks that ply Texas 225 and the surrounding roads every day, many hauling fuel or hazardous chemicals, a disturbing number have serious safety deficiencies.

Some of the problems are mechanical: brakes out of adjustment, cracked frames, major oil leaks, no taillights. Three weeks ago a gasoline tanker was ticketed for having five tires worn to the cord. Officer Gary Delozier recently conducted a routine inspection of a 1998-model truck headed to Nebraska with a load of hazardous materials. He discovered brake pads worn completely away. "It was metal-to-metal underneath there," Delozier says.

Driver negligence causes equally critical problems, especially in securing or checking hazardous loads. Last month Robinson pulled over a step van on a hunch and found a couple of tanks of hexane gas, a highly explosive compound that can cause respiratory and nerve damage, sliding loose in the back. "[The driver] said, 'Well, I'm only taking it a short distance,' " Robinson says.

With no more emotion than if he were discussing spilled milk, the sergeant ticks off incidents of tanks and containers that his team caught oozing toxic substances. "We call them 'leaking packages,' " he says. "We see it all the time -- gasoline, diesel, hydrochloric acid. Your imagination's the limit."

Robinson is not prone to exaggeration. Since Pasadena's commercial vehicle enforcement program started in 1995, almost 70 percent of the trucks inspected by police have been ordered off the road for serious safety violations. La Porte, which has a comparable "DOT unit" (referring to federal Department of Transportation certification), has encountered similar conditions. "I was stunned at the level of infractions that were out there," says La Porte Police Lieutenant Carl Crisp. "It's amazing to me some of the stuff that [the officers find]."

To enhance enforcement, the city of Pasadena approached the Texas Department of Transportation in mid 1996 with a proposal to build a weigh station just off Texas 225 that could also be used for inspections. Now, officers must pull trucks onto the shoulder of the highway or escort them to a less traveled spot. The weigh station would improve efficiency and create a safer place to conduct checks. TxDOT agreed, and this year the project was headed for construction.

But in July, TxDOT canceled the project. At a meeting to discuss the project with Pasadena officials, TxDOT engineers told the assemblage that safety concerns had forced the agency to drop its plan. Robinson was taken aback. "I asked for specifics so we could address those concerns," Robinson says. "They would not give me any specifics."

Robinson is still waiting for an explanation. But he's not likely to get one anytime soon, because he has answers to whatever objections opponents can hurl at him. He and his officers had already discussed the project from every conceivable angle over a two-year period and had worked out the thorny details -- with TxDOT engineers. "I dealt with maybe a dozen people at TxDOT," he says. "All these issues were addressed."

One group has made it plain, however, that no answers would be satisfactory -- the trucking companies, who resent having to either spend money to fix their vehicles or face sanctions from the Pasadena police. "The DOT [unit] is real bad even without the scale," complains Luis Hernandez, owner of Houston-based L. Hernandez Trucking. "We can't even make a dollar. I might as well just park my trucks."

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